Sermon: Lent 5

March 25, 2012

This week—March 24 to be exact—marks the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. He was shot in church, just as he finished delivering a sermon on this text from the Gospel of John: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” So maybe I should be careful.

But that would mean I ought to just go ahead and sit down right now, because this text is always going to be provoking. Anyone who preaches on this text or listens to it is going to find it unsettling. And if we try to embrace it…to live as if we believed it….well… we’ll be defying conventional wisdom and disturbing the peace. What Jesus is says here is that there is no such thing as death without a resurrection. And that is a radical suggestion!

During the course of the 12 year civil war in El Salvador over 30,000 people were killed. Oscar Romero’s name is on that list. He became a target because, shortly after he’d transitioned from being a quiet parish priest to being the Archbishop of the nation, he had a life-changing encounter that forced him to recognize God in a seed that had fallen to the ground. One of his friends, a Jesuit priest who worked with the poor and uneducated in San Salvador, was killed, supposedly for being a communist sympathizer. Evidence pointed to the El Salvadorian government as the killers. This priest wasn’t the only victim—many peasants of El Salvador and anyone who stood with them—were “disappeared.” They were whisked away in the night, and their bodies later turned up in communal garbage dumps, if they turned up at all. Archbishop Romero began to spend parts of his days walking through the garbage dumps of San Salvador, looking for the bodies of the friends and relatives of his parishioners, who were afraid to be caught searching, lest they become political targets as well.

As Romero learned more and more about how the powerful elite were ordering the torture and death of anyone they thought might oppose their leadership, the bishop’s voice rose from a gentle murmur to a prophetic trumpet. The Archbishop pleaded with Presidents Carter and Reagan in our country to stop sending military aid to the government of his country, as it was being used not to squelch a communist uprising, but to destroy the general population. Neither U.S. president ever replied to his letters. Who was he, after all? Just a cleric from a tiny Central American country that was considered a breeding ground for communists, at a time when the U.S. was involved in the Cold War. He was no more than a seed, a tiny seed, and easily tossed to the ground.

Eventually, Romero preached one too many sermons about how all Christians are joined at the heart. He announced once too often that children of God could not continue hurting one another without damaging themselves. He warned once too often that God listened to the blood of Abel crying that his brother had murdered him. He insisted once too often that God was not being served by more and more bullets. He became a threat to the powers. Telling the truth is a hazardous undertaking. And he was shot, right in the middle of mass.

It is hard for us to listen to this sort of thing. We want to believe that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. If campesinos in El Salvador were being killed, they must have done something suspicious. If the powerful in El Salvador were leaders in their country, they must have worked hard to achieve that status. If God allowed Bishop Oscar Romero to be shot and killed, then God must not have cared enough about him to protect him. That’s just logical, right? But life doesn’t work that way. Innocent people get killed every day, sometimes for no reason at all. Think about civilians in a war zone. Or the people who live next door when a meth lab blows up. It isn’t fair; it isn’t just; but it is the way it is. What can we do? There doesn’t seem much point in challenging this system: people who try simply get killed. And how can we be of service if we are dead?

It is not our job to determine how God can use our witness. It is simply our job, as Jesus put it, to follow him. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Ok, so where are we going to be if we are following Jesus? Do we have to pack up and become missionaries in El Salvador? Not neccessarily. There are people in every land who have been told—overtly or subtly—that they don’t matter, who are treated as “less than” because of the language they speak, the color of their skin, their immigration status, their insurance coverage, their romantic orientation, or they way they choose to worship. We who have been drawn to Jesus through his radical ministry of inclusion are called upon to speak the truth to and about such people, even if it costs us our popularity, our reputations, our lives. Many who dare to follow Jesus by opposing the powers and speaking up for the powerless—people like Archbishop Romero and many, many, many others—are treated just as Jesus was: with assassination. Yet when people die pointing toward the beauty and dignity of every life, a seed is planted. Someone hears, someone sees, and someone follows.

In today’s Gospel we hear about Greeks—non-Israelites—coming to the Philip asking to see Jesus. Philip goes and gets Andrew, and together they take the foreigners to Jesus. What does this mean? It means that the seed of Jesus teaching was growing in places no one expected it to grow. Jesus’ disciples assumed that the Messiah was for the people of Israel. Even Jesus himself didn’t spend much time ministering among Gentiles. Nonetheless, the seed took root and began producing in places and ways no one anticipated.

And that’s still going on! The Gospel—that is, the Good News that God loves the whole world and wants to save it—is often clouded by religious people who are speaking and behaving badly. Voices clamoring for justice are still routinely silenced by those who are threatened by it. But in spite of the ways that loud voices pervert Jesus’ message every day, the seed of curiosity, the seed of hope, still takes root in hearts and minds. Every day I meet people who feel that Church is passé, unnecessary, an old institution with no real relevance to the way they live. But those same people talk about deep, significant issues of meaning and ethics in their own lives and in the broader world. Many are stunned to hear the real message of Jesus: that Jesus does not want to rob them of their minds, or make their lives miserable with unrealistic rules, but wants abundant life for all creation, that Jesus loves them exactly as they are, and wants to draw all people to himself. This is still ear-shattering news!

And you and I, Philips and Andrews all, are who they come to to hear it, because it certainly isn’t what the dominant view is of the Christian message! Overtly or not, people we know are asking us to show them Jesus all the time. That’s what’s beneath their need for encouragement during a challenging time; that’s what’s behind questions about how our convictions shape our politics and our spending habits. When someone probes where your joy, your hope, your kindness, your trust, your fearlessness come from, they are asking to see Jesus.

So what do you do when someone begs you to show them Jesus? My guess is that for many, our first response is to invite people to attend worship with you. And that is a lovely and good thing—the vast majority of people who attend church services do so because someone asked them. And surely God is here among us, as God is wherever two or three gather in God’s name. But this is not the only place to find Jesus, and it may not be the best place to start for some people. If worship is too threatening, you can show someone Jesus in your volunteer gigs, or in the way you talk to or about your family. You can show them Jesus in jail or immigration detention centers, or at meetings. Try looking for Jesus at work, and among those Occupy Madison tents on East Wash., as well as in bars and buses and beauty shops. Jesus is in the Canopy Center and sits with you at dinner on Wednesday nights. He’s among the sick and the dying you visit and pray for. And yes, Jesus is still walking through the garbage dumps in El Salvador and anywhere people are treated poorly, weeping. Jesus might not always be recognizable in these places, but he is there. Everywhere. Always.

It’s a tall order to show people Jesus, but it is our calling. The trick is, there are days when we don’t plant seeds of justice, mercy, and compassion among other people because there are times, even those of us who have been Jesus followers for a long time, when we have a hard time seeing Jesus ourselves. Sometimes we get lost; we feel abandoned or forgotten. Sometimes we cling so hard to the way we think things should be that we fail to see the seed of Jesus’ love blooming in an entirely different location.

On those occasions when I can’t see Jesus, much less show him to anyone else, I look for Philips and Andrews to show me evidence that God is alive and flourishing. Just about a year ago, I came to Trinity Lutheran Church begging you, “Please, I want to see Jesus.” And you took me in and showed me green shoots poking out of the ground in all kinds of places, insisting that death is not the end, and that life and love always conquer violence and cruelty because bringing life out of what seems lifeless is simply part of how God works.

In this year I have listened to a woman advocate for fair treatment for people with mental illness. I have observed people supporting one another at the loss of a friend, a spouse, a parent. I have seen you standing shoulder to shoulder, fighting addictions and depression and all manner of illnesses. I have been approached by someone who wanted to make sure that, in this financial crisis, people in need are being taken care of. Some of you have quietly increased your financial giving, knowing that others in our community are losing their jobs. I’ve heard teenagers insist on justice for gay and lesbian couples who want to get married. I’ve seen many of you give time and energy and money to homeless families, children who need extra attention, and students who need help with homework. I’ve heard you pray for each other, for your enemies, for the world. Some of you have planted seeds of hope this week without even knowing it.

This is the blessing of grace. This is the fulfillment of the promise God made to the prophet Jeremiah. Our misadventures and errors do not keep God’s love away from us. God is no longer far away, but is as close to us as our next breath. Written on our hearts is the assurance that we belong to God, now and forever. Nothing can kill the little seed of faith planted in us at our baptisms. Even when hope is hard to locate, Jesus never leaves us or forsakes us, but accompanies us through every day. Jesus is not only the savior for people who are good and smart and interesting, but has drawn all of us to himself. Daily he empowers us to follow him, to plant seeds of understanding and welcome, and to share his commitment to embracing the whole world. Whether or not we remember or acknowledge it, a seed has fallen into our midst, and nothing and no one can keep it from growing. Thanks be to God!

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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